One of the perennial defences for television executives when confronted with the claims their programmes were the cause of society’s ills was a robust defence. Television, they said gleefully, was a reflection of society.
In the 1940s sociologists just getting used to television as mass media put forward the hypodermic needle model. The media was like an injection into the unwilling minds of zombie viewers, who couldn’t help themselves.
That theory was soon reviewed in the face of further research claiming audiences were active participants gratified by what they consumed, proving if anything that sociologists get it wrong. Ot should I say get it right until proven otherwise.
Television though has largely stuck to its claim and it’s been a defence now suitably adopted by social media. Facebook, is but reflection of who we are: nasty vitriolic, racists, and the rest.
You don’t need a degree to know people have their own personal traits, likes and dislikes and that even twins aren’t the same. In the 1890s French polymath Gustav Le Bon produced a book Psychologie des Foules; meaning Psychology of Crowds.
Le Bon had hit on something that in the 1900s onward in neo-liberalist and oligarchic regimes was milked for what it was worth by depth manipulators, businesses, governments and psychologists. People, Edward Bernays ( nephew of Sigmund Freud) would posit acted differently when brought together. The crowd gave individuals a blanket to be emboldened and do things they would not, in person, do. It’s witnessed at football stadia, political marches, physical gatherings, and now online.
Facebook is a repository of this and the cause and effect of uncivil behaviour. It’s led some early influential supporters and backers of the network rueing its birth. Maya Kosoff reporting for Vanity Fair reports a slew of supporters expressing an ‘Oh my God, what have I done’ moment.
Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya recently echoed this sentiment. “Do I feel guilty? Absolutely I feel guilt,” he told CNN.,
Had it been the sharing of lollipops and blow kisses, this admission would have be far realised. Mark Zuckerberg’s ambition, and he’s not alone as a technologist, is to make his platform Facebook the Internet. Or better still a de facto way of ironically disrupting net neutrality, while all the while claiming any fault lay with the people. Facebook merely acts as a conduit.
Net neutrality provides equal and fair use to everyone on the Net. Without it cable users and ISP could charge you a premium for accessing content, or otherwise outside of their own agreements. In some way Facebook is wall gardening users via algorithms, to find only what it wants you to find.
When Russian involvement was thought to have meddled with democracy, Zuckerberg and friends, presumably with advice from more informed people, rolled back. Zuckerberg had continually disputed any charge of what his network had contributed to in fake news, and had even rebuked then President Obama.
The signs were there. With Russia, experts like Thomas Rid, Professor of Strategic Studies, John Hopkins University on BBC Newsnight (14,11,17), point to something referred to as ‘active measures’ — a way in which information was deployed as a strategic weapon in the 1960s.
With Facebook, Twitter and the likes misinformation found an unprotected, ‘naive’ ecosystem, unsecured from the level of protection state security could at least provide. Acclaimed film essayist Adam Curtis provides a hint of this in this clip.
Facebook is now cooperating with US authorities and law makers handing over an estimated 3,000 ads thought to be the work of a Russian troll farm. But however you look at this, the issue won’t go away or as Facebook has admitted it’ll be difficult to stop. Making millions out of selling people to people and advertisers to people did not come with a price for corporate social responsibility.
Yet alas, the platform plays to the psychology of crowd malevolence — fostering too the spread of disinformation from those wishing to spread mischief. How did it get this bad? John Naughton writing for the Guardian blames half-educated tech elites.
Governments, universities and businesses up and down the land, and in the UK, there’s a dash for tech as a means to solve societies’ problems. They’re not wrong, but they’re only half right when they ignore what the humanities and arts bring to the table, outside of the sciences.
Naughton proposes whether tech company chiefs are cynical in being aware of how their platforms can be abused, or blissfully ignorant. In prompting for the latter he writes:
As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.
Half educated seems a tad harsh, half informed is more like it. Which is not what you could say about the grandees of television whose legacy is a constant stream of humanities graduates filing television’s loins, and look at how today television news is wrestling with ideas that sound anathema to audiences.
What’s the solution? Anyone’s guess at the moment, but self-regulation is the joker in the pack. Checks and balances keep governments honest, or try to ( only when the other side is honest as critics), and in the case of independent television in the UK, and now the BBC, gives power of sanctions to an independent body. It hasn’t quite worked out that well in British newspapers, as they appear to monitor themselves.
It’s a lesson to anyone thinking Facebook et al who helped amplified this mess are now going to get us out of it. In the early 1920s as radio was being formed in the UK, the opportunity arose for its comms pathway to be symmetric. You could talk to the network, much as like you do today unimpeded on Facebook. The BBC’s DG was scathing. John Reith didn’t trust the audience in handling this enormous privilege. What have we missed?